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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

Fear-flavored Turkish delight

I don’t ever really say this, and it goes against every grain of my being as a skeptical, rational person, but there is a part of me that oh so sincerely believes that if I tried hard enough, I could fly. Just lift off the ground and levitate. If I left every ounce of skepticism behind and squinted my eyes hard enough, it could happen. 

I have never once roused myself from these daydreams to remind myself how much I would hate it. A sensation courses through my nerves and veins anytime I go too high on a swing, or when I see the bottom of an escalator. When I look out the window of a tall building or down into a grate on the sidewalk to realize an immense depth below, my brain screams to me in reassurance that thousands have left footsteps where I stand and survived to tell the tale, but my knees send a more potent wave of distress. 

In order to protect my fragile self-conception, I rarely think about my fear of heights. 

I certainly did not allow myself to contemplate it when I gleefully found myself booking the cheapest hot air balloon tickets I could find for my end of summer trip to Turkey.  It wasn’t until a few days before takeoff over the historic fairy chimneys of Cappadocia when the realization started to set in. How could I actually enjoy something I felt required to enjoy, since I was spending so much money to do it? I am fully aware that nothing about a hot air balloon is actually scary, and yet…

“Just don’t have a panic attack,” my companion joked to me. 

“I won’t,” I assured him, quite unsure of whether I believed myself.

On a trial run, I took a ride with my friend on a cable car tram up a small hill in Istanbul, the side of which is a mosaic of graves. In the car, which looked to be made largely of plexiglass, some German tourists made loud conversation the entire way up. The ride was short, the hill was comically small. But still, the shaking and swinging rattled me. I was even more worried.

On the big day, I awoke having slept less than two hours. Our flight had gotten in late the night before, and the adrenaline posed an even bigger challenge. I sat in the hotel room, a man-made cave, with a serene cup of tea listening to the call to prayer played on speakers across the valley. We were picked up for the balloon ride, and as we rode, one could see an armada of Sprinters taking to the streets of Goreme, each for their own hot air balloon journey.

At the site of takeoff, they began inflating the balloon, and its sheer size eluded many a gasp from the crowd of Japanese tourists we would share the balloon with.

Courtesy of John Falger

Courtesy of John Falger

Memory, and words, fail me when I seek to describe what the experience of going up was like. Taking off, we saw more than a hundred other balloons, and the sun rising, and the incredible geological wonders of the valley. We saw a half dozen bridal photoshoots (for good reason, there was quite the golden hour). Our Japanese compatriots were gleeful, and so were we. For the 50 minutes we were in flight, I was awestruck, taken to another dimension. And I wasn’t really scared, at all. How much time had gone by in anticipation of the torment that never came?

It’s an incredibly cliché thing to say that there is value in facing one’s fears, in seeking out discomfort. I hate to use those words here, but I’m leaning in. Something one realizes in a late-night marathon conversation at a cafe in Istanbul is that, as time passes, there is resonance in many of the clichés you’ve instinctively rolled your eyes at. Perhaps there is a reason that (some) platitudes are so well-worn on our tongues and in our ears. Not everything that is true is particularly fresh.

When the mind goes to seeking discomfort, you see that even when you’re traveling, comfort is surprisingly accessible. In the small town we had come to, I looked on Google Maps for restaurants. Between the four Indian restaurants, I read such detailed reviews, drawing comparisons and rankings between the various offerings. Having come this far, there was a set of tourists who refused to partake in the local cuisine and instead tried every single restaurant that served dishes they had known their entire lives, alternating for meals, so as to become experts on which establishment prepared the best biryani or palak paneer.

The night we went up in the tram, we came back down the hill on foot. But rather than take the road, my friend coaxed me into walking on the cemetery side of the wall, with the elevated graves literally serving as our steps. It was very dark, and stray cats and dogs seemed to promenade in every shadow. Across the river, a multi-million dollar wedding blared music into the cemetery, crossing the line from joyful to eerie. Put briefly, it was a stupid thing to do. We took to the battlefield, unequipped and unconvicted, and nonetheless claimed victory. This was not the Istanbul of great architectural beauty, massive crowds or prayerful serenity I had lived in for the past few days, but this dark hillside cemetary would become part of the city I drew up in my mind. 

It’s a scary world out there, and with the advent of safetyism and a media environment that thrives on fear, it’s only getting scarier. Many of those fears are far realer than the one I’m talking about here. But our world is also becoming more rigidly comfortable. Do the stupid thing, the uncomfortable thing. Fly.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.